Preparing for auditions and recitals

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While practice is something that musicians engage with every day, there may be times when you feel the need to supercharge your practice, perhaps ahead of an important concert, audition or exam. Today I’ll share with you two tips which will make a big difference to the core work of the preparation.

1. Pomodoro technique

When I first used it a few years ago, I had no idea that this method has its own funny name (derived from a type of kitchen timer that its creator, Francesco Cirillo, had been using as a student). Back then I was preparing for one particular audition which required learning a very demanding programme, and also happened to be for the job I really wanted.

The required repertoire for this particular audition was simply huge. Normally for a harp audition it’s anything between 5 to 15 short excerpts which makes about 20-30 pages. There it was 32 excerpts, including 11 that contained complete parts, and 139 pages:

Example of harp audition programme with specified pieces and page numbers

The plan

As you can probably imagine, there was no way I could practise every single one of the excerpts (plus the two obligatory solo pieces) over the course of one day, even though at that time I was practising for 6 hours a day. Yet I had to make sure each excerpt and piece would get its deserved “practice exposure” time.

In this situation I couldn’t really rely on my old method (which could be roughly described as “spend as much time as necessary on whatever needs attention”). I had to draw up a much more precise plan of action. I decided to divide each of the available “practice hours” into 20 minute chunks (for easier maths). Then I used an alarm clock to remind me when the time was up. There were 5 minute breaks between each of the first three slots (also timed), then a 10-15 minute break halfway through, and two more short breaks. So one of the three daily practice sessions looked more or less like this:

20 mins practice
5 mins break
20 mins practice
5 mins break
20 mins practice
10-15 mins break
20 mins practice
5 mins break
20 mins practice
5 mins break
20 mins practice

Total: 2 hours and 35 minutes

I made a note of the pieces that would be allocated to each “slot”, specifying the sections I would be working on. Whatever was not looked at over the course of the day, had to be practised the next day. With this carefully drawn plan, I just about managed to keep on top of all the excerpts.

How long should I work for?

The classic Pomodoro technique traditionally uses 25 minute slots. However you can go for any length of time that suits you. Sometimes your focus may be low (or the stress level high) and you will only be able to focus for 3-5 minutes. Another time when the alarm goes off, you may decide to skip the 5 minute break between two 20 minute slots and have a longer 40 minute work interval, with a longer break afterwards. You can use this method the way it suits you best.

Kitchen Pomodoro timer

2. Put limits on social media

I discovered the power of cutting time spent online when preparing for the exact same audition. With the gargantuan amount of work I was facing, I came up with the idea of getting completely off Facebook for the whole preparation period (one month). And I must admit it was revolutionary.

First – one of the most tempting excuses to delay my first practice session of a morning was gone. There was no need to catch up with anything that has been posted during the night. And no need for a minimum dose of scrolling to be done just to get the sense of “knowing” what’s happening in the outside “world”.

Second – without the deluge of mostly meaningless and sometimes upsetting information, my mind was able to focus more effectively on the main project that was to be my priority for the next few weeks.

Third – suddenly, I had so much more time on my hands. Admittedly, most of my students were away on holidays back then. And, as I was straight out of college, I didn’t have much work apart from some emails, small gigs and admin tasks. Nevertheless, after I dealt with whatever I needed to be doing during the day, I found myself with not much else to do… apart from practice. This was also slightly unsettling, because the conclusion must be that beforehand all this time must have been used up online. At that time apps monitoring the user’s “screen time” and what was it spent on were becoming increasingly popular already. However I don’t think I would want to know how much it actually was.

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More solutions

In any case, this experience was revolutionary and changed the way I approach social media and other online content now. While back then I decided to go for the radical solution, later on I discovered other options that help users put a cap on the social media use while still being able to access it (for example for work). I now use News Feed Eradicator, a browser extension which removes the news feed (replacing it with an inspirational quote) and at the same time eliminates the incentive for endless scrolling. Right now my screen looks like this:

Presently, I mostly use Facebook for work. On the days that I’m using it, it takes me only about 10-15 minutes to do everything I need to. The work I do on Instagram takes a bit longer, but I aim to limit the time spent there to 30 minutes a day.

If you feel that you might want to change your habits related to social media, most of them nowadays offer options to help you limit time spent on them (how kind!). Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook all let you set up your own time limit, after which you will receive a notification telling you your time is up. Unfortunately it does not prevent you from scrolling further. If one day a solution comes up which will automatically block the app access after a certain time, I will definitely go for it. (Even if such thing as “will power” exists, it needs quite a bit of help!)

And you?

Have you tried any of the above and did it work for you? Do you have any other tips that supercharge your practice? Let me know in the comments!